Memory  /  Debunk

Was She Really Rosie?

The unlikely, true story of the Westinghouse “We Can Do It” work-incentive poster that became an international emblem of women’s empowerment.

As JSTOR Daily has previously pointed out, Miller’s image was not a recruitment poster, and the figure it depicted was not named “Rosie the Riveter.” She had no name at all. The image would likely have been identified only by its slogan: “We Can Do It.” Instead, the phrase “Rosie the Riveter” was the title of a 1943 song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb as well as that of a 1943 Norman Rockwell cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post.

Crucially, given the mistaken impression that “We Can Do It” was an icon of women’s work during the war, the image’s posting instructions direct that it be displayed in Westinghouse factories for just two weeks in February 1943, making it highly unlikely that the image circulated publicly at all. Far from recruiting women into the workforce, the only women who would have seen “We Can Do It” in the 1940s were those already employed by Westinghouse. Moreover, the poster’s work-incentive message was a far cry from the feminist ethos attributed to the image today.

So, how did an obscure corporate propaganda poster become a symbol of women’s rights and work, one potent enough to be repurposed in transnational women’s activism decades after its creation?

Rosie’s is a story of archives.

From Miller and Westinghouse, “We Can Do It” made its way into the relatively newly constituted U.S. National Archives. Established by Congress in 1934, the National Archives was invested in recording and preserving artifacts from WWII, among other eras, as one of the first momentous periods it chronicled in real time. Once “We Can Do It” entered its holdings, it remained out of the public eye until the early 1980s, when an upstart feminist press expanded its reach among the broader public.

Helaine Victoria Press (HVP) was co-founded in 1973 by Jocelyn Helaine Cohen and Nancy Victoria Poole, feminist activists in California. The press moved to rural Indiana in 1976, where Cohen and Poore printed postcards and other items on a 75-year-old letterpress printing machine. HVP’s “postcards from women’s history” aimed to depict a broader swath of women’s historical activities and contributions than was typically rendered in popular culture. HVP produced and published hundreds of postcards of historical women active in literature, art, politics, education, and a wide variety of occupations in the U.S. and around the world. The cards primarily featured women known to historians but absent from public memory and included brief biographical details on the back. Yet some also featured images of nameless women, like she who would later become Rosie.